For this avid fan of historical fiction, the fate of Lady Jane Grey has always been of great interest. Having been influenced by the traditional view of the “Nine Day Queen” (as a devout Reformist propelled into her role as Queen of England after the death of Edward VI before Mary Tudor seizes the throne for herself with the country’s support), my perception of Jane is severely challenged by Higginbotham’s portrayal of the young woman’s life and family.
Higginbotham focuses her dramatization on two female protagonists: Frances Grey, wife of the Earl of Suffolk, and Jane Dudley, wife of the Duke of Northumberland. Both women’s husbands are instrumental in arguing for Jane’s right of ascendance as a legitimate and named heir of Edward VI, while Mary and Elizabeth Tudor—daughters of Henry VIII—are designated as bastards and illegitimate. Most difficult to endorse is the author’s version of these women’s roles in settling Jane on the throne—especially Frances Grey, long considered a dominating, often cruel mother.
Higginbotham sets this notion on its ear, depicting Frances as a dutiful wife and doting mother. From her husband’s rise from Marquise of Dorset to Duke of Suffolk under Edward VI, and Jane Dudley’s spouse from Viscount Lisle to Duke of Northumberland, the plan is set in motion, at first in casual conversation, later more seriously when it becomes clear that the young king is dying. Edward is adamantly Reformist, deeply suspicious of his half-sister Mary’s intentions in restoring Catholicism to England. With her great intelligence and Reformist sympathies, Lady Jane Grey provides a welcome solution. Unfortunately, the gross miscalculations on the part of the schemers, that the public will accept the relatively unknown Jane, puts their plan in jeopardy almost immediately. England rallies behind Mary, who gained sympathy through her father’s rejection of Katherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn. The public will come to regret their impulsiveness when Mary brings further chaos by marrying Philip of Spain, earning the sobriquet “Bloody Mary” for her zealous persecution of non-believers.
Still, the basic challenge remains; the author’s treatment of Frances Grey as a strict but loving mother, only wanting what is best for her girls. The studious Jane is portrayed as a docile young woman obsessed with learning who gradually evolves into a stubborn and intractable daughter after a sojourn under the roof of Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr. Higginbotham’s interpretation is in marked contrast to other writers of this genre, though she strikes me as a bit of a provocateur in general who enjoys a contrarian perspective, as seen in her conviction that Richard III was undisputedly involved with the murder of the Princes in the Tower (The Stolen Crown).
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. Frances Grey was probably far less venomous than sometimes portrayed, but not as solicitous and supportive as this author would have us believe. Jane Dudley as co-protagonist feels like mere window dressing for the author’s challenge to the depiction of Lady Jane Grey as the victim of her parents’ venal ambitions. Neither Frances Grey nor Jane Dudley here inspires much interest for this reader, serving as pawns for Higginbotham’s point of view, lending little insight to known history in the end.